Thursday, January 14, 2010

Night Watch: Dystopia as Prologue

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett, 2002.

Interesting. Certainly one of the stronger Discworld books, and plays with some stronger emotions than usual. As well, the whole device of using the city past as dystopia was interesting, quite different from the norm for genre writers showing an oppressive setting. There's a lot to like scene to scene, with atmosphere and direct moments. The book also benefits from one of Pratchett's epiphanies (Vimes's recognition of Ankh-Morpork as a process, and then later ensuring Carcer would get a fair trial in the same spirit) and, in Carcer himself, one of the series' more creepy and plausible villains.

One implicit strand on this novel is that while earlier versions of most of the usual Ankh-Morpork cast show up as younger versions--Vimges, Colon, Nobbs, Vetinari--Carrot is completely absent. This makes sense, after all he arrived at the city in Guards! Guards! and this work obviously needed to be set before that, but it also fits with the general atmosphere of the piece. This is an environment where naive optimism gets hammered out more than it changes the world, where political change derives from back stage political decisions that doesn't alter essentials.

Still, for the hype I've heard of this book I was left a bit disappointed, and it perhaps indicates some of the aesthetic limits of the Discworld, that for all of Pratchett's good comedy and neatly rendered ideas he's not on the level of writers like Mieville, Valente or Kiernan. It seems Pratchett holds back at crucial points, and will go for the bit of satire or historical parallel over full emotional commitment to his invented situation. Specific things that bugged in Night Watch:
-It seems Pratchett gave in too much to the temptation to make cute continuity references. Was it really necessary for Vimes to encounter younger versions of as many people as he did?
-Vimes himself has grown to be a bit tedious, post Men at Arms. Too self-assured and self-righteous for it to be great fun spending a few hundred pages in his head, and his struggle with his urge to rage is rendered over-simplistically ('the monster inside him stirred')
-Vetinari's presence was largely a wasted opportunity, making a lot of jokes on invisibility and rendering him as unexplainedly helpful rather than showing him developing towards the political thinker seen in other books. Given the most looming contrast between the Night Watch era and "modern" Ankh-Morpork is Vetinari's role as Patrician, that seems to leave a bit of a void at the heart of the politics in this work.
Still, overall quite enjoyable and interesting, and I found it far more satisfactory than Unseen Academicals.

Similar to and better than: Terry Pratchett's Thief of Time
Similar to and worse than: Yevgeny Zamyatin's We

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